Going in to the 2014, it was difficult to see how the Kansas State Wildcats would replace two-time All-American Ty Zimmerman, who held together a DB rotation that was at best average. New faces dotted the board, JUCO transfers, guys who looked shaky, and only Randall Evans was a sure-thing.
Fast-forward to 2015 and nearly all those concerns are gone. The 2015 Wildcat DB corps is loaded with returning starters from a squad that was consistently above-average and at times looked spectacular. So lets take a look at who will be lining up for the Cats in the defensive secondary this season.
The 2015 unit is led by Senior SS Dante Barnett. Barnett is a Team Captain and has garnered multiple pre-season award watch-list nominations. Barnett finished the 2014 season with Second Team All-Big 12 honors after starting all 13 games for the Wildcats and finished second on the team in tackles (77) and interceptions (3), while also managing to snag 4.0 tackles-for-loss. And his interception count should have been higher, and reports out of the spring indicated he was working hard on improving his catching skills.
At CB are Seniors Danzel McDaniel (Thunder) and Morgan Burns (Lightning). McDaniel finished 2014 with Second Team All-Big 12 honors, and is the stuff of nightmares for several poor souls who were on the receiving end of some of his tackles. McDaniel carded 59 tackles, five tackles for loss, one sack, one interception, and two forced fumbles in 2014. The INT was a pick-6 against OU, the 5-yard return the shortest under Bill Snyder, and the sack came late in the game against Iowa State to help preserve the four-point victory. Burns came away from 2014 with 55 tackles, and tied Barnett's mark of three interceptions. Burns provided lightning in the return game, taking one to the house against Oklahoma State (to extend K-State’s kickoff-return touchdown streak to a nation-best 10-straight seasons), and coming up with big returns against KU (65yds) and Stephen F. Austin (105 total yds).Replacing the now-Philadelphia Eagle Randall Evans at the "Cat" safety slot (also known as the nickle-back) will be either Senior Nate Jackson or Junior Donnie Starks. Jackson had a fairly quiet 2014 campaign, but earned two starts (UTEP for an injured Morgan Burns, and UCLA) and recorded 13 tackles (including four against UCLA in the Alamo Bowl). Jackson's biggest claim to fame is that he earned the starting nod at Free Safety for the Alamo Bowl, after season-long starter Dylan Schellenberger went down late against Baylor, over rising Freshman Kaleb Prewett and RS-Freshman Sean Newlan. Starks mostly played in mop-up duty last year, but started the 2015 Spring Game with the Purple squad in that spot (though possibly because McDaniel was held out and Jackson slid outside).
The lone true question mark for the 2015 Wildcat DB corps is at Free Safety. Prewett, Newlan, and RS-Freshman Kendall Adams are all competing for the job, but no matter who wins it will mean a very-green player who, at best, has only seen action in mop-up duty and on special teams. Newlan appeared in every game last year, but carded five of his six tackles on special teams. Newlan greyshirtted in 2012 and redshirtted in 2013 meaning he's the oldest of the bunch and been with the team the longest. He was also a track champion in HS so we know he's got some wheels. Prewett was part of the much-lauded Blue Springs Trio, and played in six games in 2014, though recorded no stats, and will be a true sophomore in 2015. Prewett did earn the start for the Purple squad in the Spring Game. Adams is the wildcard, having redshirt in 2014, but had worked his way into the conversation during practice. It is clear though, that the "losers" of this battle will still see action as the primary backups for Barnett and the "winner" of the FS battle.
We already touched on the back-ups at safety, so lets jump right to who figures to be in the battle to be chief backups for McDaniel and Burns. Sophomore Cre Moore and Junior Jesse Mack are likely to see the field first after the loser of the Starks/Jackson battle. Moore redshirtted in 2013, and saw mop-up action in five games in 2015 but didn't record any stats. Mack arrived from JUCO as a sophomore prior to the 2014 season, and only saw action against UTEP, where he didn't record any stats. After those two are a slew of freshmen and walk-ons, including the jewel of the 2014 recruiting class Duke Shelley.
Besides the question mark (and maybe not even that) at Free and "Cat" Safety, the 2015 K-State DB corps is loaded with speed and talent, and there are several talented guys waiting in the wings. Led by Barnett, this unit looks to be the cornerstone of the K-State defense. In the pass-happy Big 12 that's a great thing to see. It's also possible that this unit could be the best and deepest overall to grace Bill Snyder Family Stadium since 2002.
Stay tuned for more preseason position previews!